The Rev. Eben Taylor, a United Methodist clergyman in South Carolina, was known for his advocacy for racial justice. I was invited last month to deliver the annual Eben Taylor Memorial Lecture on Love & Justice at College Place United Methodist Church in Columbia, S.C. In preparing my remarks, I reflected on my own family history because I was acutely aware that racism has touched us, too.
I reflected on my own family history because I was acutely aware that racism has touched us, too.
I am deeply appreciative of those who have gone before me in the faith and in particular in The United Methodist Church who have had the courage to take stands for social and racial justice, often in hostile environments. They have inspired me to do so, as well.
A colorful character
My grandfather, Eugene Dickerson Winkler, was a colorful character and auto mechanic in local Ford dealerships in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma. His father, also named Eugene, was a baby doctor in DeWitt, Ark., in the delta region in the early part of the 20th century.
The Winklers were proud of their German heritage, but during World War I the local townspeople forced Dr. Winkler to raise the American flag each morning to prove he was not loyal to Kaiser Wilhelm. The responsibility to raise the flag fell to my grandfather, a teenager at the time.
Just a few years after Grandpa had been a victim of this chauvinistic persecution, he became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Just a few years after Grandpa had been a victim of this chauvinistic persecution, he became a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Grandpa remained a devoted racist for the rest of his long life.
I loved my Grandpa, but he fell into the same trap many others did. Even though he experienced ethnic discrimination due to his German heritage, in the United States he could always join with other whites to persecute those of African heritage.
Dedicated WSCS member
My grandmother, Hester Elizabeth Petty Winkler, one of the world’s worst cooks, was one of the most dedicated members ever of the Women’s Society of Christian Service (WSCS), now United Methodist Women. Grandmother found her social conscience in that movement. In 1952, the WSCS adopted the Charter for Racial Justice, a significant document in the history of our denomination.
My grandpa was a self-described rock-ribbed Democrat. My grandmother was a dedicated Republican. In those days, some of you will recall it was the party of Lincoln, the Republican Party, that was considered to be the more sympathetic to civil rights.
My southern family’s story is not particularly unusual. Grandpa was imbued with the social and secular values of his peers. Grandma was more deeply affected by the church, as was my own father, a pastor for nearly 60 years who is currently serving his fourth church since retirement.
My father was president of the Oklahoma MYF in 1952, and thus, attended a training event at Mt. Sequoyah in Arkansas. It was there that he met the great Jim Lawson, later a mentor to Martin Luther King Jr. and many other important leaders of the Civil Rights Movement. Dad drove his 1946 Ford to the training event, but the engine caught fire on the way. Dad jumped out and pulled the battery cables, which significantly slowed his progress to Mt. Sequoyah.
By the time Dad got to the retreat camp, it was late. He was assigned to a room with two double beds and went to sleep. When he woke the next morning, Dad found he was sharing that bed with a young black man, Jim Lawson.
One of the other young men in the room was Jameson Jones, who later became dean of Duke Divinity School. Dad recalled, “Here I was, a young man who had only recently moved from Mississippi to Oklahoma, sharing a bed for a week with a black man who had just been released from prison for refusing to register for the draft because of his pacifism.”
Jim Lawson influenced Dad’s understanding of Christianity. In fact, at the end of the week, Jim Lawson and Jameson Jones staged a ceremony for Dad that culminated with Lawson pinning a milk bottle cap on Dad. On it Lawson had written, “I have slept with one.”
My Grandpa never reconciled himself to civil rights, but the church provided the space in which my father and grandmother came to understand the moral imperatives of the teachings of Jesus Christ that required them to support racial equality. They have passed that on to me and I to my children.
How do we proceed as we move forward from here? Three principles derived from Catholic social teachings can serve us well:
- The needs of the poor take priority over the wants of the rich.
- The freedom of the dominated takes priority over the liberty of the powerful.
- The participation of marginalized groups takes priority over the preservation of an order that excludes them.